Philosophe Alain

Le site de référence sur le philosophe français Emile Chartier, dit Alain (1868-1951), par l’Association des Amis d’Alain, fondée par ses proches après sa mort.

Le site de référence sur le philosophe français Emile Chartier, dit Alain (1868-1951), par l’Association des Amis d’Alain, fondée par ses proches après sa mort.

Equality through differences

I don’t like to think about the problem of races. This way of thinking is rather insulting. Like deciding whether someone is intelligent or not, vain or not, brave or not. It’s tempting, but should be resisted. Not that I refuse to see differences, on the contrary it seems to me that I do see them, but much closer to me, in my fellow human beings, in my friends and this leads me to liking the differences, and to not making a virtue or vice of them. A man six foot tall stretches his arm to take a book on the top shelf; a small man can’t do as much, but uses a stool. A small man has other advantages; he has a lighter load to carry, he weighs less on a horse or a dingy. In so far as inventiveness overcomes physical power, all becomes equal, without removing the differences. Intelligence has a lot more than one route. One person is short-sighted, but is also a good observer. A large man is slower to make a decision, but shows more cunning. Some people are exceptional in planning but coarse in their feelings; others are born poets or musicians and with that, as sometimes said, not very intelligent; but that’s said too quickly. Between an abstract mind and a metaphorical mind, no decision has to be made. One person is quick and so goes wrong; another is held back by emotion, and also goes wrong; but there’s a remedy for everything. There’s no vice that can’t be turned into a virtue; and someone for whom everything is easy, often does nothing very well. Someone proud of and trusting in their own nature is not far from being a fool. Haven’t we seen good minds err strangely in difficult times?  To decide on what someone can and can’t do from their promise, signs and aptitudes, is a ridiculous pleasure, which I avoid.


Photogramme tiré du film « l’homme à la caméra », Dziga Vertov, 1929


A mind that wants to be just, in all sense of this fine word, should rather to reflect on the astonishing saying of Aristotle: ‘I have the idea that the virtue of a man is his and can’t be taken away from him.’  Spinoza expresses this differently in saying that a human being has nothing to do with the perfection of a horse.  Following up this idea, I note that no one needs the perfection of their neighbour. But everyone should aim for their own perfection, making the best of the obstacles they find within themselves. A fencer with long legs stretches out, one with short legs dances around. Who’ll make the best hit?  I say that this comes from work, courage and trust in oneself as much as to do with arms and legs. But what variations in intelligence, judgement, invention?  Let two men develop their powers, as did Plato and Aristotle; see the difference in their perfections, and say which is the best, if you dare.

So let’s dare a lot less,  so long as we haven’t exhausted all means of instruction and help. Whoever the person, they should be given the highest terms of praise, untiringly. We can’t do less, if we have the least knowledge of our own weaknesses and the credit we have ourselves received, without which one can do nothing. It’s precisely this that the church calls Charity; a different virtue for everyone; but we always have to overcome the differences, between dark eyes and blue eyes, between blond and brown hair, between black and white, and first of all, between oneself and others. At which generosity aims directly; but intelligence also helps, which doesn’t erase the differences and which, on the contrary, gives them rights and a charter by more attentive observation of real conditions and structures. It’s often the theoretical that is mean and foolish.

Libres propos 3/11/23

English translation copyright © Michel Petheram

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